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Will Work For Beer

NOVEMBER 18, 2007

ere’s how it all began. I’ve distilled it down to ease eye fatigue.

Maggie and I joined Susan Blommaert, a fine actress and an old flame, for lunch at Terrapin here in Rhinebeck. Her friend, Tom Grasso, tagged long and, following lunch, he and I had an opportunity to talk. He was born in 1941, same as me and was, for a time a pro musician, so we hit it off immediately. Turns out, he’s involved with a new Hudson Valley magazine called Roll and, when he discovered I was an illustrator, he wondered if I would be game for an interview. I happen to know a lot about myself so, a couple of weeks later, Tom, Roll Magazine’s editor, Ross Rice and I ended up back at Terrapin for some good food, fine brew and the blah, blah, blah, everyone is glancing at their watch but me, interview.

Would I do an original cover for the magazine they wondered, with the caveat that the budget was low. Tell you what, I said, give me complete creative freedom and I’ll do it for two cases of Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale. I coughed up a cover and Tom stopped by with the stash. Sweet.

Here’s the cover and the article. I’d like to thank Roll for allowing me to publish the article, Ross and Tom for their fine company over lunch and Maggie and Roll’s art director, Donna Calcavecchio, for the cover design.
Elwood Smith: Will Work For Beer….a chat with Ross Rice from Roll.
Oh, you’ve seen his work, all right. Unless you never ever read Time, Newsweek, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, or New York Magazine. His visual style is a classic one, with elements of Krazy Kat, Barney Google, and the Katzenjammer Kids, which has evolved into a distinctly original style that has the ability to convey a multi-layered setup and punch-line all in a single image, often without text. A self-described “humorous illustrator” at the top of his game, he still maintains a fearless curiosity and willingness to explore new genres.

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Elwood Smith.

First thing we (“we” being ex-rocker and Roll “elder” Tom Grasso and me) learn over lunch with Elwood: he is a beer enthusiast, though not a beer snob, having learned the finer points after multiple tastings of a close relative’s home-brewing experiments. “I’ve always liked beer. I am not broadly traveled, but I’ve been to England twice and I didn’t KNOW beer until then.” He attributes his good health and outlook to good taste in beer (Belgian ales a favorite) and good genetics. We grunt assent and toast with a round of Chimay.

Looking back over an impressive professional career that blossomed when he relocated from the Midwest to New York City in 1976, Elwood offers a frank assessment: “Starting out, my heroes were George Herriman [Krazy Kat], Billy DeBeck [Barney Google], and the infamous Rube Goldberg. I was trying to draw like those guys. I bought the same pens, which are still available, but I never quite got it. It took a while but I managed to channel their classic style into my own voice. Thing is, even though I am known for that retro style and I’ve made a good living working that way for many years, I often felt trapped by the style. Over the years, I’ve tried to stretch beyond that way of drawing—trying to find a way to break from the conventions of things like perspective. It’s my goal to find my own voice, not my own voice filtered through those cartoon masters.” Like many artists, Elwood was searching for a personal style beyond his immediate influences, and met resistance. “I started in New York with the Barney Google style, and later when I came out with my new style, it was a smaller feet, smaller hand style. There were a lot of people who, when I gave them the new one, they wanted what they saw before, what they were comfortable with already.” Still, the change was made and clients kept calling, but the lesson was learned: commerciality and creative change would always be a tough balancing act in the ad biz. . . but not impossible. Elwood’s quality prevailed and with his new style he racked up a succession of major clients: Sony, GE Cellular One, Pizza Hut, ATT, Prudential. . . the list goes on and on. His “humorous illustration” style was easily adapted for numerous books for adults, as well as children.

Many clients, awards, and accolades later, we fast-forward to the present, and Elwood favors us with a copy of Gee Whiz! It’s All About Pee, a whimsically informative children’s book (written by Susan Goodman) that, along with its sister (brother?) book The Truth About Poop, makes full use of Elwood’s all-ages sense of humor. He’s rightfully proud of these “because they’re really good books! When you read these, they’re classy books, it’s all information, it’s not scatological. I happen to be one of those people in the world who thinks that it’s sad that, due to the repressed [nature] of this country, pee and poop. . . well, especially poop, are not talked about. I’m amazed, because aside from sex and music and drinking, having a good BM - there’s something so satisfying about that! Why don’t we make that something people talk about readily?”

Uh, how about we have lunch first, Elwood…

Another thing we learn about Elwood: If you like the looks of his sandwich at lunch, get him talking about music, and an hour later, that sandwich is YOURS, baby. “Well, I can play a little Western Swing, and I can flatpick bluegrass guitar and plunk a little mandolin. . . when my chops are up I can get a sort of Norman Blake thing going.” Elwood’s interest in music began in the 40s, while listening to WATZ, the only radio station in his hometown, Alpena, Michigan. The station played all styles of popular music - swing, bluegrass and country music and Elwood soaked up the music of Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Benny Goodman. Later on, in the late 50s, inspired by guitarists Les Paul and George Barnes, Elwood took a few guitar lessons with Cootch & Mabel Couture and started a dance band with pals. They knew all of 6 songs for their first gig at the DAV hall. Ignorance was bliss. 

Elwood discovered classical music while attending art school in Chicago and it is still his favorite musical form. “I listened to some rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s but it never really grabbed me. In the late 60s, when my friends were digging rock, I was obsessed with music of the Renaissance. I built a clavichord from a kit, which I couldn’t really play, but I could pick some John Dowland on my 7-course lute.” Several years ago, however, an interest in a more pop style of songwriting emerged and he took a songwriter’s workshop with Rosanne Cash at Omega Institute. Musical help came in the form of John Platania, (guitarist extraordinaire for Van Morrison) whom Elwood had met through his friend, bassist Steve Bartles. When they were recording a soundtrack for a five minute video that featured Elwood’s artwork, Platania happened to be doing some work at Paul Antonell’s Clubhouse (in Germantown at the time, now in Rhinebeck), and he generously offered to sit in on Elwood’s gig just for fun. One thing led to another, and after some demos, Platania was onboard to record an entire solo album of Elwood’s songs, funded by Elwood, with one stipulation: he wanted lots of creative freedom - something a session man rarely gets. Thus was the Lucky Dog album recorded, a truly enjoyable album available at Oblong Books Rhinebeck and at www.johnplatania.com.

Elwood’s enthusiasm for music remains a constant, with fairly regular jam sessions at the house, collective improvisation encouraged. It turns out we both really could talk music all day, but it’s getting late in the afternoon, and we’ve reached an agreeable beer buzz point, so it’s time to ramble on. (Elwood gets a to-go container for his sandwich though….darn. Close, so close.)

What’s really getting Elwood cooking these days is a personal renaissance of sorts, concerning his artistic vision. Luckily for us at Roll, Elwood took the opportunity to experiment with this issue’s cover, and share some of his creative process with us. “I drew the little bear guy with the horn in my conventional way, inking it in on watercolor paper, but without adding watercolor as I usually do. In Photoshop, I layer the line art over a bed of color dabs. . . I make these dabs on a strip of watercolor paper as I’m working on jobs. I save the best of the watercolor paper strips for use in my experimental projects. The loose color backgrounds free me up and keep me from coloring my art within the lines. I do exercise some control, but I try not to mess around with those wonderful, accidental shapes flowing within and outside my drawings. It is similar to the way I make films, letting the “happy accidents” take me down new creative avenues. It’s all like it’s happening beyond me, but then I can monitor and modify it.” Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is discussed as an example of this kind of free-associative creation. “[Miles] had the vision to go beyond chops. The new ‘me’ is going to start doing more where I just conjure up something. . . where, for instance, it doesn’t matter if I know where the pull-cord on the lawnmower is, I just trust myself to make up a lawnmower!”

Meanwhile, the phone still rings with new challenges; Elwood and Susan Goodman have just finished a third collaboration, See How They Run, about presidential elections for Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Elwood’s wife Maggie, a respected artist in her own right, as well as Elwood’s representative and business manager, has become a first-rate graphic designer, designing all promotional materials for their cottage industry. Both stay pretty busy, but Elwood finds time each morning to ease into each day with a two mile walk through town. Dee at the Bagel Shop has a smile and a cup of coffee waiting for him before he heads back to the house to finish work on a children’s book (about swamp creatures), then on to the next project, where he will be trying out some of his new techniques. “If I didn’t have to make a living, I would probably just make my little films - scooping together found objects, collage and imagery, both still and moving, and throwing in an occasional drawing now and then. . . not even worrying about drawing anymore. And I love creating music for the soundtracks. I truly believe my most creative times are ahead. All this [my career] was just laying the groundwork, and I’m a slow learner.”

© 2007 Roll Magazine

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